When the world tells you that the highway to personal fulfillment is accessible to all, yet you struggle to find the on-ramp, do you begin to believe the journey is just not meant for you?
The notion that every child has an equal shot at a successful adulthood lies at the heart of the American identity. It’s a principle that we internalize from our earliest years and a message that has defined us as a people, around the globe, throughout our history. It has inspired scores of immigrants and has driven many of our nation’s most remarkable stories.
But can the prevalence of this ideal come at the expense of children who face more obstacles than their more privileged peers on the path toward accomplishment?
In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color, writer Melinda D. Anderson examines how the message that opportunity is available to all in comparable measure might harm young people whose experiences belie that assumption. The article describes the observations of an educator in an economically distressed Chicago neighborhood, as well as the findings of child development experts, suggesting that children from marginalized communities often shed idealism about their future prospects as they approach high school. At around that stage, they appear more likely to adopt behaviors that match the expectations they perceive society really holds for them, engaging in riskier conduct and focusing less on academic achievement.
If the message of egalitarianism conflicts so sharply with the reality of discrimination these young people face, it makes sense that they might disavow one belief for the other at some point in their development.
“Meritocracy is not synonymous with fairness,” explains Richard V. Reeves in his recently published book, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It. “It is essential so grasp this point if we are to stand any chance of moving toward more equal opportunity,” he continues.
Describing what he views as the entrenchment of the economic stratum comprising the top 20% in the United States, Reeves contends that the upper middle class holds firmly to a disproportionate share of advantages in education, health care, and other sources of the capital that fuels success. Members of this class also pass these benefits along to their children, leaving lower economic classes with little chance of competing fairly for the assets that their more affluent peers gain through the circumstances of their birth.
Arguing that class barriers in the United States are in fact quite unyielding, Reeves offers this succinct summary of the contradiction between the ideals to which we aspire as a nation and the challenges to class mobility many of our communities face:
“Americans are more tolerant of income inequality than the citizens of other countries because of this faith that in each generation the poor run a fair race against the rich, and the brightest succeed.”
Considering these critiques of opportunity in our society doesn’t necessarily serve to undermine the ideal that anybody can accomplish great things. To the contrary, by working to remove the obstacles that block many Americans from realizing their potential, we can more effectively achieve our vision of meritocracy, which would benefit everybody. When we give everyone a chance to become who they might be, we broaden the pool of talent that can positively shape our society for all future generations.
How do we accomplish this? Equal opportunity is a worthy aspiration, but a little guidance toward that goal certainly helps. Addressing institutional practices will no doubt be necessary in order to effect meaningful change, but the best first step is to acknowledge our own individual potential to discriminate. Looking past preconceived notions to see the qualities that matter takes work. In our book, Overcoming Bias, we offer several activities that help readers recognize and set aside their personal biases to foster genuine inclusion in their workplaces and in their lives.